Analysis: Why Are Broadcast Networks Still Scared Of Sports Betting?

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It’s the fourth quarter of Chiefs vs. Raiders on Sunday Night Football in November 2021.

The Chiefs lead 41-14 in a blowout. There’s nothing left to play for, not even a backdoor cover.

“We’re in Vegas,” NBC announcer Al Michaels says. “I wish I could tell you that something was in play. But this game is over. We know it’s been over, with a capital ‘O.’ And the cover. You know what I’m talking about.”.

The reference delighted plenty of gamblers, happy to be in on the joke.

But should there really be a need to just hint at gambling? At a football game in Las Vegas, in a league with multiple gambling partners, and on a network with a sportsbook deal

Networks want to occupy the middle lane

NBC earns hundreds of millions of dollars from an advertising partnership with PointsBet. Fox has its own sportsbook and CBS has a partnership with Caesars. Yet the networks are still broadly resistant to discussing sports betting during games. Why is that?

ESPN summed it up quite well in a preseason conference call last September.

I guess the simplest answer is that the main telecast is still designed for the mass audience, and gambling remains a largely niche audience,” said Lee Fitting, ESPN senior vice president of production.

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“I think it’s safe to say that we’re all moving in a direction to serve the gambling fans, but I can also say that we want to get there smartly,” Fitting said. “The goal is not to be the first, but to be the most successful in this area for the longest amount of time.

“As far as the main broadcast goes for this coming season, we’re not going to get into that territory.”

It means at present, betting content is largely confined to specific shows like ESPN’s Between The Lines, or even alternative broadcasts.

What’s in a BetCast?

This month, for instance, PointsBet ran its third-ever BetCast around the Philadelphia 76ers vs. Chicago Bulls NBA game.

The broadcast ran on NBC Sports Philadelphia Plus and featured live odds on screen showing the moneyline, player props, and futures prices.

“The main thing for me is just normalizing betting,” said Jay Croucher, PointsBet head of trading, who appeared on the broadcast. “We are not talking about math and 2% edges. That is a very niche audience. I want to be talking about (DeMar) DeRozan scoring 30 and what that does for his MVP odds.

“People get frightened by odds. They think this is some complicated domain. We want to show we are just watching the sport as well and putting numbers next to it.”

Content is king in sports betting

PointsBet said its BetCast for January’s Waste Management Phoenix Open helped to double handle on the PGA Tour event. The recent NBA BetCast had a similar result, with the Bulls game attracting 141% more handle than any other game NBA game that night. 

Indeed, this kind of content is only growing more important as operators look to dial back their bonusing spend.

“Operators are going to need to think about retention and building relationships with their customers,” said Ken Hershman, former president of HBO Sports. “That’s going to happen through content.”

The parallel broadcasts are a big step but they will always be a relatively niche market. Even the ManningCast, the king of the category, gets around 12% of the viewership of the main broadcast.

A typical simulcast would attract something like 3% of the viewership.

Education comes first in sports betting

So how can broadcasters introduce more betting content to their mainstream feeds? One thing is simply being comfortable with the language of betting.

To that end, PointsBet is doing plenty work behind the scenes with NBC TV and production staff.

“The main thing is just being available to the talent across Football Night in America, Golf Channel and so on,” Croucher said. “We are available to explain why Bryson (DeChambeau) was 22/1 last week and 12/1 this week for example. We want to make sure people are comfortable talking odds. The more normalized it becomes, the more it helps us.”

And are broadcasters receptive to it?

“They are,” Croucher said. “It helps tell stories. When Leicester won the EPL title at 5000/1, it helps you explain exactly how unlikely that was. It’s also a content generator. ‘Here’s the top five in odds for MVP. Where do you agree, where is it wrong?’”

Softly softly catchy monkey

As for specific integrations, media experts recommend baby steps.

“You can’t eat an elephant in one bite,” said William Mao, a VP of media rights consulting at Octagon agency. “You can’t just throw all the betting information in at once.”

Mao suggests “priming the audience” at the start of a broadcast with a graphic, akin to the widespread “keys to the game.”

“Why not lay out three ‘markets to monitor’ at the start of the broadcast,” Mao said. “Spread, total, and quarterback passing yards maybe. And then check in when relevant throughout the game. Then announcers aren’t suggesting any bets, just laying out facts.”

 Sports betting guru?

Alternatively, Hershman suggested an analytics expert, akin to the rules expert who is patched in at key moments.

“If they go on this fourth down, what does this mean for their win percentage?” Hershman said “That information feeds right into in-play betting which is obviously where the industry is heading.”

Hershman is currently CEO of Champion Gaming, the company behind Football Outsiders and Edj Sports. That business is “pivoting aggressively” towards betting to take advantage of this trend, Hershman said.

Change is already happening

Taken altogether, the historical betting blackout in broadcasts looks to be fading away. Talent and productions teams are learning the language of betting and the storytelling benefits it can bring.

Operators will also likely continue to support BetCasts if they keep delivering strong engagement metrics.

This February, NBC’s Super Bowl pregame show was the first to have odds on the screen. Don’t be surprised if next year’s event is the first to have odds integrated into the game feed itself.